Anthony Minghella: The English Patient (winner)
Joel Coen: Fargo
Milos Forman: The People vs. Larry Flynt
Mike Leigh: Secrets & Lies
Scott Hicks: Shine
If you take a look at the top-grossing films of 1996, you’re not going to see a whole lot that I take very seriously as a film. Oh, there are some fun movies there, but none of our candidates here cracked the top 10, and of those that are there, only Jerry Maguire was nominated for any of the awards I care about here. And really, if you want to be depressed, go look at the Wikipedia entry for 1996 in film and see just how many complete stinkers were released that year. So let’s talk noteworthiness here, because many of the films I’m about to mention didn’t really have a shot at an Oscar. Trainspotting might swing a nomination today, but was probably too edgy for 1996. Scream and The Frighteners, two films I love, are simply the wrong genre. Breaking the Waves would be an interesting choice, but is also fairly off-putting. I loved Lone Star, but it might not be big or important enough. As for Sling Blade, well, I haven’t seen it yet.
Weeding through the Nominees
5: Say goodbye to Shine right away. I don’t really have a lot to say against the film except for that fact that it comes across very much like a movie of the week about a disease or ailment of the week. The performances rise above it, but the plot really doesn’t. More to the point, I don’t recall anything in particular that recommends it as a great directorial effort more than any of the films listed above (at least of the films I’ve seen). I’m not sure there’s enough here to distinguish it from any other film of this type, so I’m not precisely sure why it was nominated in the first place.
4: The English Patient won the big award this year, starting a minor trend of epic romances as Best Picture winners (it was followed by Titanic and Shakespeare in Love, after all). It’s not at all a surprise to me that it won the Oscar for cinematography, because the film is truly beautiful to look at. And for what it’s worth, I rather like the film, although I’ll never toss it out as one of my favorites. Is it well-directed? Sure. And I’ll admit that managing to keep an epic within its scope is a daunting task. But the direction of this film speaks to me far less than the cinematography.
3: I knew nothing about Secrets & Lies going into it, and I have to say that I liked it far more than I thought I would based on the story. This is an incredibly smart film, and it’s smart because it doesn’t specifically go for the obvious conflict, but opts instead for something much more nuanced and much more human. Much of that comes from the direction of Mike Leigh, but I think even more of it comes from the screenplay. Leigh can be credited for pulling out some wonderful performances and relationships and I love the nomination. It’s just not what I’d put first for this year.
2: Go ahead and take my placement of Joel Coen in the second position here with a grain of salt; I am a fan of the Coens in general and of Fargo in particular. There’s a lot to love in Fargo, so it can be difficult to ferret out what comes from the direction and what comes from the performances here, but a great deal of the credit goes to Coen (and his brother) for what they accomplished with this film. It is beautifully shot and constructed, and I love the way the camera is used throughout. It’s a smart film that sometimes masquerades as a dumb one, and I love that, too.